Thursday, September 28, 2017

Trap Hills and beyond - a dozen wilderness viewpoints

Michigan's western Upper Peninsula - the region west of Marquette - has won my heart.  There's something about the ecology of the forests, the soil, the climate, and especially the remoteness, that makes for a primal hiking experience.  Some might fear getting lost here.  The trail is, in places, barely a trace.  But for me it is a place where I feel 'found' - where I am most at home.

It's not something that always lends itself to photography.  How do you photograph a sense of peace and quiet?  How do you document the wonderful *lack* of signs of human disturbance?  How do you convey the sense of being in a great natural cathedral?

The trail has begun to take me through vast stands of primary forest now, after all the logging and trashy young regenerating areas I complained about in a previous report.  Here, even where the land is flat for mile after mile the understory is open, giving you a sense of the grand scale of the woods.  This is especially true in the seemingly endless stands of sugar maple with red maple in the wetter areas, and the dark thickets of giant hemlock with boles so massive that you can't stretch your arms halfway around them.  The transitions between these basic forest types come mixed with spruce and balsam fir, the occasional white pine, and stands of bigtooth and quaking aspen, paper and yellow birch.  Where you find northern white cedar the footing can be rooty and boggy, but the trail builders have tended to avoid these areas where possible.

Where the roots of the earth itself rise up, having resisted the long millennia of grinding of the glaciers, the bedrock lifts skyward in great rounded mounds, called Monadnocks in New England.  There I have something to photograph and share.  And there is where the trail has been taking me whenever possible lately.

Hat number 85 sits on a sloping ridge of the bare, glacier-smoothed bedrock, overlooking the wild landscape.

Rarely can you detect signs of human presence below.  It compares favorably with Maine's hundred mile wilderness along the Appalachian Trail.

If you look closely, you can spot a bit of Lake Gogebic in this view--near the horizon, just left of center.  Most of its 14-mile length is hidden behind higher ground farther to the left, but Lake Gogebic is the largest natural 'inland' lake in the Upper Peninsula.

It's going to be tough to leave this area.  I'm getting spoiled by constant 'real trail' without interruption.  Hat 86 sits beside my lament as I wrote in a trail register book that I would soon be heading south.

I have a new plan - a route to the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin that takes me past some hallowed ground.  As a kid my family took many summer vacations in the 'North Woods' of Vilas County, Wisconsin.  And I've discovered the 'Heart of Vilas' bike trail that spans the county.

But I'm well ahead of myself suddenly.  I still have the 'Porkies' to hike.  Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park promises to be the climax - the apex - of the kind of hiking I've grown to love, but also the final punctuation mark.  The "period," or "full stop" as they call it in England.

Fall is coming, and after the leaves drop, this hike of mine will come to a full stop for the season.  I guess I'm getting wistful.  I don't want it to end.

Here are the GPS tracks of the two mountain hikes included in this report, shown with the terrain.  It is good hiking.  Come see for yourself!

Monday, September 25, 2017

Michigan's mythic mountains - rugged, remote, redoubtable

Here's what I hiked today.  Topography of considerable note.  It was a tough, long day but worth every ache and pain.

The cliff in the headline photo is an old Peregrine Falcon Hack site - where young birds were trained.  It has to be remote and centered in a vast wild country.  This it is.  I'll be climbing that mountain another day, and not many more days beyond I'll be in Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park--a wild yet popular backpacking mecca that seems to be Michigan's answer to New Hampshire's White Mountains.

This, along with Tahquamenon Falls, the pebble-strewn sandy beaches of Lake Superior, and Pictured Rocks, is the heartbeat of Upper Michigan's wild soul.  I'm falling in love with this place, and I'm going to hate to leave.

The morning began with a quick climb to the first view.  Hat 84 and my trusty walking stick posed with more racks of mist and cloud.

The mists were evidence of abundant recent rains, and the moist conditions continued to draw out some spectacular displays from the fungus world.

Here, too, the lichens and ferns are loving it.  This fern had a stark, showy coloration that I've not noticed before--rare or common, I do not know, but it's new to me.

Also new to me was this variety of lichen that seemed to be trying to 'bloom' baby ribbon pink and form little pitchers and flasks and trumpets.  Odd and odder.

The mountaintop viewpoints were many and varied.

The trail also took me along the base of a talus deposit beneath one of the cliffs.

Near the end of the day I was high above Victoria Reservoir.

Then the trail took me through one of the old copper works buildings associated with Victoria, a mine opened in the late 1800's.

This was one of the special days, and it turned out to be the first of several.  I'm looking forward to sharing more of my experiences in these special places.  Stay tuned.

O Kun de Kun Falls and the $2000-per-hike bridge

Another day of hiking Ottawa National Forest, with few breaks from 'green tunnel' trekking.  The highlight was definitely O Kun de Kun falls.  Named after a native American chief, this is a waterfall you can walk behind--my favorite kind.  But I didn't realize that until I looked at some of the online photos later.  I didn't explore the falls in depth while there because of the group of smoking, out-of-shape, middle aged folk crawling all over the area who had come down (illegally?) in a caravan of off-road-vehicles.  The really good places are often too popular, too trampled, and too crowded for my tastes.

I let Hat number 82 pose at another viewpoint and then headed on.

There's a huge sturdy suspension bridge over the Baltimore River that the national forest installed for hikers just below the falls.

Yet very few people hike the NCT beyond the falls.  As soon as I crossed the trace of the trail became faint, and remained so.  Several miles on down the trail there's another, nearly identical footbridge over the Middle Branch of the Ontonagon River. 

Yes, the faint track in the left foreground leading to the bridge is the North Country Trail.

Ontonagon means 'I lost my bowl' in Ojibwa.  The legend goes that one of the women in Chief O Kun-de-Kun's band was washing bowls in the river when a sketchy looking, unkempt white man came by in a canoe asking about the name of this river.  She was so unnerved by the man that she dropped a bowl in the river and uttered the exclamation - and the name stuck.

But I digress.  This bridge, set deep in the remote wilderness of Ottawa National Forest, clearly gets very few hikers.  Other than the infrequent visit by local chapter maintainers, it seems that only long distance section hikers and thru-hikers bother with this nondescript section of trail.  Probably only five or ten per year.  Making a guess about the cost of this bridge, including the not inconsiderable cost of transporting the materials to this remote location, and assuming the bridge has been in place for 25 years, the math produces an amazing number.  The bridge cost the government about $2000 for every hiker that crosses it.

The rest of this day's hike was about what I saw in the woods.  A few nice mini-landscapes like this one.

The second day covered in this report was cloudy and dreary after a heavy overnight severe thunderstorm.  I was supposed to ford another branch of the Ontonagon River this day, but because of the rain and the wet summer in general, I chose to do the high-water-bypass road walk instead.

Hat 85 shows the weather, the traffic-free US 45 through this remote area, and a view of an area called the Military Hills, named, apparently, for the original purpose of this highway.

Here I got a look at the muddy river from the highway bridge;

and that helped seal my decision to skip the ford.  As it turns out, taking the bypass may not have been necessary.  The ford is downstream of a dam, and is only dangerous when water is being released down the spillway.  Apparently the spillway has been closed lately, but I didn't know that until I talked to a local at the late 19th century log cabins of the Old Victoria mining town restoration later in the day

and then saw the dry spillway from a viewpoint the following day.

All this came too late to change my mind.  For me, by that time, it was already ... well ... 'water over the dam'.

Here are the GPS Tracks of the two hikes, the first in the woods, the second all on roads until the last mile near Old Victoria.

The $2000-per-hiker bridge is at the little squiggle right in the middle of the track.
The dam and spillway and trail ford can be seen center left in this view.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Ottawa National Forest - Trail among trees

Three days of hiking produced a few highlights and a few outrages, but for most of the time I was on flat ground in deep woods, with views limited to a few feet to a few hundred feet by the foliage.  I'll dispense the GPS tracks one at a time.

Day one had the most variety.  It's the source of the photo up top, the view from near the Oren Krumm Shelter on the Sturgeon River.

Tibbetts Falls was near the end of that day, on the same river--not a spectacular drop, but great noisy rapids and cascades.

Earlier in the day I passed through a major 2008 burn area, still far from recovery.

It did supply some material for the artistic eye,

And in places the young pines were regenerating, chest high, and as thick as flies.

The real outrage this day was the areas of logging, some selective, some utterly trashing the trail and the hiking experience.  Hat number 79 introduces us to some of Ottawa National Forest's new horizontal, portable forest.

Questions:  What makes Ottawa National Forest think it's okay to pillage the National Scenic Trail that they are charged to protect and care for?  Does greed know no bounds?  Doesn't this mega-forest have enough trees in it that they can leave a corridor along the trail (what is called a 'view-shed') undisturbed?

Why do these questions even have to be asked?

Common sense, not legislation, ought to be sufficient.  Government-paid Forest managers seem to be listening to the loggers.  The small quiet voices of the hikers--of the forest itself--protesting the rape and plunder, seem to be drowned out by great roar of the skidders, the all-in-one automated saws and bunchers, the trucks, and the smell of diesel and bleeding pitch.  Oh, how my fury burned.

Day two was far more quiet--to the point of boredom.

I did pass through the Gorge of the Sturgeon River, shown best by this topographic map detail.

But the trail provided no panoramas--no views from the rim.  There was one along a road but I didn't drive in.  The best scene I saw was right down beside the river, where it wound lazily past some giant white pines and color-changing sugar maples.

Hat number 80 paused as I etched a little "HEY, wait--you're-leaving-a-trace" message on the common but interesting 'white board' fungus, which turns instantly from white to black at the slightest touch.

Day Three, if it is possible, was even more featureless.

Two beaver ponds, of which this is one,

and a sudden stretch of perfectly maintained trail after emerging from almost being lost.  Hat 81--my oldest hat, first non-Little-League ball cap I owned in my life--poses with its apt message on the proud maintainer's sign at the trailhead.

These people have a right to be proud.  But I wish they would have spread the wealth.  As I said, the adjacent section was overgrown to the point of being dangerous--branches in the face, couldn't see footing, stepped in bog-pits and ankle-twisting holes--went long stretches without any blazes to the point where I thought I must have missed a turn and backtracked a quarter mile, but no, pressing ahead I suddenly came out upon this eight-foot-wide perfectly manicured grassy boulevard-in-the-woods.

People, you've built a gold-plated mansion in the middle of a squalid slum.  On the other side of your section is the freshly trashed logging area.  No matter how much you preen your wonderful piece of trail, you're still living in a slum.  How about devoting a little love to your neighbors rather than staying cloistered behind your mansion gates?  Share the wealth.  Go out and spend a day cleaning up the adjacent section where there is clearly no active maintainer.  Visit the Ottawa National Forest Business Office in Ironwood and speak up.

Thank you very much.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Canyon Falls, fall color, and a shocking scene-stealer

The sun, the morning dew, a spider's handiwork and ... a ... WHAT???

It's a reliable old proverb: "Expect the unexpected, because you're going to get it, and most likely when you *least* expect it."

Why do I never fully learn this lesson?  Today I started my hike in an ugly, recently-logged area.  I was more worried about keeping my socks dry as I picked my way through the dew-soaked foliage.  I didn't expect much of interest until I reached Canyon Falls well down the trail.  It's a popular destination because it's a ten minute hike from the highway, but I was approaching it from the back side, and would reach it after 14 miles of trail through Copper Country State Forest.  I've seen previous evidence that Michigan State Forests are heavily and frequently logged.  The Upper Peninsula is an area with few jobs.  The timber industry is a major employer.  So when I parked beside the trail at this logged-out area on Plains Road, I knew what to expect.

Or thought I did.

Every day I look for a chance to feature my hat of the day--try to get that item ticked off the to-do list early.  So when I saw a dead, decapitated tree with a blue blaze amid this trashed former-forest, I thought: "Well, there's some fall color here, so lets fashion a shot with Hat 78 and it might make a half-decent photo."

It was with that attitude that I began taking photos of some of the little things, such as the way the sunlight made the bowl-and-doily spider webs sparkle.

I thought it would be a good opportunity to try to document the complex structure of these little masterpieces, and it was while doing that (shooting the headline photo) that I suddenly got gob-smacked by what I saw hanging on a branch right behind my subject.

Surprise!  The little guy was out early, catching the morning sun, trying to warm up.

Suddenly my mood shifted 180 degrees.  I looked for more 'good' in this logged out landscape.  I watched a flock of ducks circle this wetland three full times before concluding that there were no predators (and, perhaps, that I was not a threat) before they all made a clean landing on the open water out of view to the right.

Another boggy area was lined with some spectacular red maples displaying this species amazing variety of fall color.

A lone red maple, not worthy of the chainsaw, stood proud amidst the destruction, gilded in its fall finery.

And the moist fall weather was still fostering new mushrooms.

Babies are always the cutest.

Finally I reached the advertised attraction for the day - Canyon Falls on the Sturgeon River.  This is the falls.

This is the canyon.

And here is a wide shot of the falls with the canyon it has carved.

So a day that I thought was going to be a "one trick pony" turned out to be a full three-ring circus show, worthy of any big top. 

Love them 'old proverbs.'

Here's the GPS track for today's long hike in interactive form.  Zoom in on any particular area for a closer look.  Note the appearance of the 'forest' in the western two-thirds of the hike, all in the State Forest.

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